CA: SMART Wants $8 Million More from Marin Taxpayers

Marin County taxpayers appear to be on the hook for another $8 million to get the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project rolling.

It's the most recent turn for the rail project that has been in financial peril since soon after voters gave their approval in November 2008.

The agency's latest grasp for cash from taxpayers has some seeing red because it could take dollars away from needed road work and transportation improvements in Marin.

"SMART made promises that they were going to independently operate with federal and state dollars and not have to cannibalize our other transit, transportation and road and bridge dollars to help backfill," said Marin Supervisor Susan Adams, a member of the Transportation Authority of Marin.

Voters passed a quarter-cent sales tax in Marin and Sonoma counties with the understanding a complete 70-mile rail line and adjacent bike and pedestrian path would be built from Larkspur to Cloverdale.

But the program is short on funding, and now the Transportation Authority of Marin is being asked to find more tax dollars to help finance a much shorter project from downtown San Rafael to Santa Rosa.

Adams made her comments at the Transportation Authority of Marin on Thursday night as the panel pondered whether to give the $8 million. The final decision on that is set for June 23. Several people at the meeting noted the train plan passed by 63 percent in Marin in 2008 and that TAM should spend the money to start the train.

But given the funding shortfall and new, shorter initial alignment of the proposed line, Adams tossed out another idea.

"We are hearing the voters want this, maybe it is time to go back to the voters and say, 'you know what, if you really want the 70-mile line and bike path, we need some more money,'" she said. "To continue to erode other transit and road projects to backfill something that we don't even know the cost of gives me a lot of heartburn. There is a trust issue now that we are facing."

But Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey, chairman of the Transportation Authority of Marin, said different forms of transportation in the county are needed.

"We at the TAM agency set a vision almost a decade ago that included multi-mobility, and multi-modal mobility," he said.

TAM may have little choice but to approve the payout to SMART in order to satisfy the powerful Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which controls the purse strings to much of the transportation dollars handed out to Bay Area counties.

The commission is working with SMART to find ways to get the rail line going. But even with cuts and a shorter rail line, the plan is $21 million short.

The commission said it would match funds if the Transportation Authority of Marin and Sonoma County Transportation Agency contribute dollars to help close the gap. Under a formula worked out by the parties, the commission would give $10 million, Marin $8 million and Sonoma $3 million.

Marin would spend more than Sonoma because it would receive a larger initial capital investment, officials said.

But SMART critics are crying foul. They note SMART's own strategic plan from 2009 says: "SMART has agreed not to seek any funding that TAM or Marin County Transit currently has programmed for transportation improvements in Marin County... ."

"They are reneging on a promise to the voters," said SMART critic Mike Arnold of Novato. "And they have it backwards. There are twice as many taxpayers in Sonoma County as there are in Marin. Sonoma should be paying twice as much."

SMART's funding bid might not stop at the $8 million.

SMART officials have outlined how they would seek regional money to help bridge the train project's overall financial gap of $350 million.

Part of that plan includes seeking $82.2 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission through the Regional Transportation Plan. SMART officials hope the request will be made on their behalf by TAM at some point. The commission wants to see a list from each county, so that as money flows in from various sources over the next three decades there is a list of projects waiting.

SMART supporters say traffic on Highway 101 will only get worse in the coming years even with the widening of the Novato Narrows. A fixed rail line with its own right of way will only grow in popularity once it is built, they say.

Transportation watchdog David Schonbrunn said it's time for transportation agencies to begin to work with SMART to make sure it can thrive. He likened SMART's arrival to a new sibling in a family.

"Now it's time to share," he said.

Contact Mark Prado via email at mprado@marinij.com

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